by Jon Pine
As soon as I heard about the horrific earthquake in Haiti last Tuesday my thoughts immediately turned to a tiny village called Simonette, about 15 miles north of Port au Prince. Here, like so many villages dotting the hills of Haiti, live some of the poorest people on the planet.
Their “homes” are mostly sheets of tin and wooden boards tied together with rope or wire. The floor is the dirt beneath their feet. Most sleep on a blanket, a thin mattress or maybe just some scavenged cardboard. A fortunate few manage to earn enough money for some bricks and mortar to construct sturdier walls.
But there is no running water; instead, the villagers tote it in on foot, in five-gallon plastic buckets balanced atop their heads, from a community well more than a mile away. There is electricity – sometimes. It’s off way more than it’s on, so it can’t be counted upon. Meals, when they can afford to eat, are simple fare cooked in steel pots over a charcoal fire. Almost always it is boiled rice and beans.
I visited Simonette in 2003 with friends who had been missionaries in Haiti for more than 20 years. Their latest project was to support Ed Hughes, a retired Canadian tool and die maker who had set up a make-shift orphanage just outside the village. There, two dozen or so boys and girls, who had either lost their parents or whose parents could no longer afford to care for them, found comfortable beds, sanitary conditions, at least two hearty meals a day, and the means to attend school every day. I was there to take photos and video to create fund-raising materials.
We have not heard any news about the condition of the orphanage following the earthquake. Tragically, Ed died a couple of years ago after falling off the orphanage roof while trying to adjust his satellite antenna; his son reportedly runs the orphanage now. We sort of lost touch with them after Ed died, and I’ve been trying to locate the area on some satellite photos taken after the quake. But it’s such a tiny village it is not listed on any maps. I am hoping that, by some miracle, they are all okay.
But what is “okay”? That’s the question that has been haunting me this week, as I worked with other local volunteers to collect food, medicine and other emergency supplies for the victims of this horrific tragedy. If we help the survivors get back on their feet and resume a life close to what they had before last Tuesday, is that “okay”?
I don’t think so.
An estimated 80 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line, with 56 percent living in abject poverty. One in three babies born does not survive to age five. These statistics are from before the earthquake.
This is not “okay”.
The tragedy in Haiti is our tragedy, despite what jerks like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson want us to believe. We should never have accepted this level of poverty so close to us, while we enjoy comparative riches beyond belief.
Haiti’s long-standing poverty is a major reason that the destruction and death tolls from the quake are so great. Port au Prince, the capital city, was designed for 400,000 people. But nearly three million live there, wedged in beside and on top of one another in spaces designed for far fewer people.
Construction there has also been substandard. Often, to save costs, concrete was mixed “thin,” with not enough cement and too much sand. Just as often, steel reinforcing bars, or “rebar,” was either skimped on or eliminated altogether. Many buildings that probably should not have crumbled, did.
Of course, money alone can not fix all of Haiti’s long-established problems. The widespread corruption and lawlessness must be addressed, too. My hope is that this tragedy will focus the eyes of the world on ALL of Haiti’s problems, not just this latest catastrophe. Because even though the quake has killed an estimated 200,000 people according to the Associated Press, poverty there has surely claimed the lives of many, many times more.
I know what some of you are thinking: “We have our own troubles now. We’re in a recession, bankruptcies are rampant, and unemployment is through the roof.” But I’ll share a couple of little stories:
On Thursday, a young lady pulled up to our food and medicine drive in an older model car. Clearly not one of our many rich housewives who live near the beach. She handed us a couple of small bags with some food and hygiene items. “I will be back tomorrow,” she said as she pulled away.
Yes, she did come back. Because Friday was the day she received her food stamps. And she used all of them to fill the back seat of her car with more food for Haiti.
And there was the Hispanic couple with two small boys who pulled up thinking we were giving out food instead of collecting it. Clearly in dire straights themselves, once they understood what we were doing, they came back and each of the boys pressed a crumpled ten-dollar bill into my hand.
If they can afford to give, can’t we all afford to give?
© 2010 Jon Pine